Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hand over your DNA!

Are you my ancestory?? is the website. The smiling face on the home page is said to belong to a satisfied customer who is 38% West European, 24% Scandinavian, 16% Irish, and 11% Greek. (Hmmm. This only adds up to 89%, wonder what part of this poor guy is missing!) You could get your racial/ethnic mix tested for only $129 Canadian. There are many other websites as well that offer to trace your genetic origins based on a swab you send in. 

I’m not a geneticist; not even close. But I have to admit that I’m skeptical about how one can be genetically Greek, for instance. Japanese, Scandinavian, British are neither ethnic nor racial designations, surely these appellations link to citizenship, which has no genetic component. If I think of my ancestry, I’m sure a genetic test would not indicate “Canadianess,” I’m likely nearly 100% West European, a piece of information that’s totally useless. (It might be useful if the genes that most West Europeans carry also figure in a physical condition that could kill me, something like gereonteritical europeanensis—don’t look this up; it’s fake news.)

Obviously, the retailers of genetic ancestry services have grouped and named genomic categories in such a way that the appearance of meaningful information is present. But we all know about retailing that it’s not about public service, it’s about profit. And if we’re the kind of people who can be enticed into buying a basket of sheep manure in Christmas wrapping for a mere $129 Canadian, well, you get the drift.

My brother ordered an EPP heraldic crest; what he got for his $10.00 was as phony as the Donald Trump Fact Society (DTFS). What somebody out there got was $10.00 minus the cost of a piece of xeroxed paper, a cheap envelope and a postage stamp. Sell this as a remedy for low self esteem to 10,000 people and you’ve made . . . well, you do the math.

We still put a lot of stock in the relative worth of racial, ethnic, religious, language and national origins. Yet none of these are predictors of our quality as creative, honourable, faithful, peace-loving human beings in a sea of other, almost-identical humans. Truth is, one can brag over coffee about being 20% Caucasian, 20% Native American, 20% Oriental and 40% genetically sprung from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . . and still be a total jackass. 

It’s happened.

Or one can count Genghis Khan, marauding Huns and Joseph Stalin in ones genetic ancestry and still be the one who develops a cure for cancer while fighting AIDS in the jungles of England and writing romantic poems with lots of trees and birds in them, and constructed in perfect sonnet form.

Genetic DNA may well determine body build, appearance, propensity to be vulnerable to certain health issues, etc. I guess I'm more interested in spiritual DNA, cultural DNA, educational DNA, nutritional DNA, etc.; those precursors that actually make us what we are to our families, friends, community.  

(If you wish, I can advise you on better ways to flush away $129. Or if you can’t decide among the millions of “better ways,” send it to me and I’ll invest it for you. I could make you very, very rich and if not, $129 is no great loss . . .

. . . eh?)

Just hope you're never faced with something like, "I suspect your 17.5% Kurdish; your nose gives it away. Let me swab the inside of your cheek! It'll probably also tell me whether or not you are likely to become a terrorist!"

Monday, January 09, 2017

Let's put our flags down and talk.

Driftwood at Las Lajas

The Washington Times in March of 2016 reported on a speech President Obama gave to Argentinian students. In it,  he was basically making the point that the hard-line choice between capitalism or socialism need not be their only options when visualizing their future politic. He went on to say that under Castro’s communism, Cuba was able to realize good education and health care for all Cuba’s citizens, but that the same system proved unable to develop a decent, working economy. Similarly—although the capitalist market place economies have produced huge economic growth—modifications have had to be made in order to ensure that citizens benefit from these results.

His point was: look for choices that work in your place and time, and don’t be tied to an ideological allegiance to either extreme.

There is, of course, a large anti-Obama cohort in the USA and any number of websites use this speech and some references to a friend who voted for a communist candidate in college to allege that Obama is, in fact, a communist. (See and search “Obama is a communist” to access the gist of that discussion.) One irony is that the American constitution guarantees freedoms that would certainly allow anyone to legitimately hold to a political philosophy that is socialist and to campaign in that direction, so how can being a socialist automatically make one un-American? Similarly, the attempts to prove Obama to be a Muslim (as a condemnation) defy the same American constitution's guarantees of freedom of religion.

The notion that America is a capitalist, Christian place and must defend itself against any threat by other economic or religious alternatives is a delusion. Although the economies in North America largely operate on free market principles, the practice of providing health care at state expense, supporting child-raising with government subsidies, the provision of education at taxpayers’ cost, support of the poor through social welfare programs, all these fall under a “socialistic” rubric. Not to mention that governments regulate and tax corporations—the scope of marketplace freedom is not unlimited.

We live under mixed economies in North America—not capitalist, not socialist, but we have generally come to do what works for us in our time and place. That was exactly Obama’s point in his speech to the students. The USA leans more toward the capitalist extreme than Canada, but neither country can boast of being a bastion of either extreme position; we will continue to find the mix that works for us. Sweden leans more toward what’s sometimes called the ‘granny state’ than either of us. It seems to work for them.

One lesson history should have taught us is that attempts to impose either the pure capitalist or the pure socialist economies have always been disastrous. Both systems, when left unmodified, produce elites that either through political-party status or through the accumulation of obscene wealth produce ever- increasing inequality. Both systems unmodified produce an upper class and an underclass. Both systems tend to decay as inequality mounts: citizen participation decreases; cynicism and non-cooperation turns to active protest, even sabotage; citizens whose allegiances veer toward either the left or right turn on each other, blame each other for their perceived problems. In short, community and the community spirit seeps away until national goodwill is badly damaged or gone.

The Soviet Union breaks down, the Roman Empire collapses, Tiananmen Square protests are crushed, the 2008 economic crisis in the USA sees taxpayers blackmailed into rescuing irresponsible bankers, North American politics is polarized as never before, Greece and Spain verge on economic collapse, Brexit happens.

Latin America has had more than its share of right-wing dictators, doctrinaire communist dictators, bloody uprisings, foreign interference and failed coups. Obama was advocating that students put down any flag-waving, ideological biases and work together in negotiating what mix will work in their country at this time. It’s exactly what’s needed all over America; it’s the only approach with any real chance of long-term success.

Unless your definition of success is a full-scale, fight-to-the-death showdown in the OK Corral. That could be fun too.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Tanker, pipeline, tanker, etc.

I didn’t know until today that a major crude oil pipeline crosses Panama from the Pacific to the Carribean just south of where I’m writing this. Reading about the pipeline reminded me that a cross- mountain pipeline development (Kinder-Morgan) has been approved to increase capacity for transporting oil from Alberta to tidewater at Vancouver. When the pipeline here was completed in 1982, a road was built connecting the two oceans, a road we traveled a year ago to visit a friend in Bocas del Toro. I noticed then a large, white pipe exposed where it crossed ravines and rivers and buried—I presumed—where it didn’t. I took it to be an aquaduct.

Originally, the pipeline facilitated the transportation of crude from Valdez, Alaska to the Gulf Coast refineries in the USA. Up to 20 tankers a day carried the oil to the terminal on the Pacific side of Panama from where it was pumped across the isthmus and reloaded onto tankers at Bocas del Toro on the Carribean side. It makes for a mind-boggling potential for spills.

The Panama Canal has affected the practicality of the tanker/pipeline/tanker sequence for moving crude, but the pipeline has been adapted for forward/reverse shipment and still moves oil between the USA and Ecuador as well as from Venezuela to the Pacific

Back in 1982, scant attention was paid to environmental impact, and “PTP [Petroterminal de Panama S.A.] has applied little restraint in construction and operations of the pipeline with consideration to the environment. The pipeline project "was approved and completed in 1981–1982 before submission of an environmental impact assessment". ( The pipeline crosses the Panamanian Cordillera and both as a result of it and the road construction required to facilitate its construction and servicing, there’s been a marked disruption to delicate ecosystems, soil erosion, etc.

You can take a visual tour of the pipeline courtesy of Petroterminal de Panama S.A. by clicking here.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A few days on Taboga


Taboga Express Ferry.
Families trading the grime of Panama
For the sweltering beaches
Of Taboga.

We walked Taboga’s narrow street today,
Almost to the end and back.
This is some of what we saw:

A mother tormenting her toddler,
Walking ahead too fast for the little one
To keep up.
Crying, crying rage.

Four men under the hood of a pickup truck,
(One of only three or four on the island)
Tools, parts scattered about,
Perplexed, resigned expression of a listener to
A voluble, mechanical sermon from a man drinking
Coca Cola through a straw.

A dim church
A clutch of people praying.
New construction, crumbling ruins.
Beach girls wearing little,
Eight drunken young men
Singing, dancing, shouting, making sure the world knows
They exist.

Remains of a shipwreck.

Balboa may have been here,
But I doubt it.
1510. Step father of the Latin in Latin America.
Made it to the blue, blue Pacific
for which
Countryman Pedro Arias de Ávila ordered his head chopped off.

Also a painter, writer was here,
Anita McAndrews, born 1924.
Died 2005 in Newport,
Memorialized on a tarnished plaque
Above the beach.


On the black horizon,
A freighter resting with lights twinkling,
For a rendezvous with the locks of
The Panama Canal.

And in the distance, faintly,
The skyline of Panama City.
Henry Morgan, I recall, was there, 1671,
(Panama City, that is)
Burned it to the ground
After the raping and pillaging was done.

Taboga Express Ferry.
Families escaping the grime of Panama
For the magnificent beaches
Of Taboga.

        I ate two fish tacos, papas fritas and half a tomato
      With a cold beer to wash it down:
      Balboa Cerveza – $1.75 US.
      (I actually prefer Corona, a Mexican beer
      But it’s a dollar more.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Meet the Ngäbe-Bugle

Ngäbe-Bugle girl


I think they, the largest indigenous group in Panama, are usually called No-bee. Their history and their place in Panamanian society interest me primarily as a comparison/contrast to the situation of indigenous Canadians. All indigenous groups together total roughly 200,000 in a country with a population approximately the same as Alberta. The Ngäbe-Bugle form the largest indigenous grouping.
      When the Spanish conquered the Panama region in the 16th -17th Centuries, the goal was to clear the country of indigenous peoples and populations were violently, brutally decimated or forced into slave labour. The Ngäbe-Bugle had been coastal people but were driven into the mountains of Central Panama where most still subsist on vegetable and fruit cultivation and seasonal employment on coffee and fruit fincas and on ranches belonging to Mestizos. In general, the Ngäbe-Bugle live far below the Panamanian poverty line and the comfortable climate, the abundance of rain are directly responsible for their ability to survive on what is relatively marginal land on steep slopes. The year-round temperature range where the Ngäbe-Bugle live averages ca. 17 to 27 degrees Celsius.
      What I find interesting in the Panamanian situation is that indigenous people have found ways to negotiate forcefully with governments and as a result have obtained large swaths of land over which they are sovereign. The Ngäbe-Bugle, for instance, were able to obtain sovereignty over a large homeland when in 1997, the government hived off portions of Chiriqui, Bocas Del Toro and Veraguas provinces to create the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle. The closest equivalent we might find in Canada has been the creation of Nunavut with a great deal of autonomy granted to the indigenous population. The way we think about land sovereignty in Canada might be different if the negotiations for “reserved land” had taken place in the 20th Century instead of in the 19th!
      Although the federal system retains taxation and infrastructure control in the Comarcas, the control of how land will be used and by whom is in the hands of elected councils in the Comarcas. I was looking for a route today by which we could get to Buabidi, the largest centre in Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle; the map shows not a single road so I expect that such lack of infrastructure is typical of those regions designated as indigenous territory.
      Here in Boquete in Chiriqui Province, it’s obvious that the Ngäbe-Bugle don’t live exclusively in the Comarca. The colourful dresses of their women and the jeans-and-shirt men are abundant in the town square and on the roads leading into Boquete. The similarity to Canada in this regard is obvious. Survival on the marginal lands reserved for indigenous people requires that the opportunity for casual or seasonal plantation or ranch work must be taken. (An aside to this is that wages in Panama are abysmal; a coffee picker might well work a long hot day for $10.00.)
      Some things have decidedly been done right. Virtually the entire population of Panama has a school nearby and the literacy rate is as high as Canada’s. Panama has also had a long-standing policy of non-discrimination and ethnic minorities and women can generally find a route to self-sufficiency—everything else being equal. 
     In contrast to some Latin American countries, Panama has no strong Marxist party, has had no revolution comparable to Cuba or Nicaragua; it’s generally been governed conservatively (since Noriega’s military dictatorship), probably a consequence of the overbearing American presence from the time of independence in 1903 to the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama in 2000.
      In essence, European colonialism has left a stench wherever in the world it’s been. The Cree of Saskatchewan and the Ngäbe-Bugle of Panama have all had to live with this smell for a long, long time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Super Hornet Anyone?

Boeing F-18 Super Hornet jet fighter
$325,000,000 X 18 = $5,850,000,000 +$500,000,000 = $6,350,000,000

Do these numbers look outrageously large to you? They do to me. Canada is planning to purchase 18 Super Hornet jet fighters from Boeing. Including the weaponry and spare parts, the cost for each would be around $325,000,000 Canadian if the final price tag is the same as the ones Kuwait just purchased. 18 of them would run to $5,850,000,000. Additionally, the government proposes to spend another $500,000,000 to upgrade and service the old CF-18s we now have so they can stay aloft—for now. That should hold us for ten years or more until we can replace THE ENTIRE FLEET at who-knows-what cost.

Let’s do some comparing; the numbers are just too big for unaided imagination. The total cost of the Hornets and the upgrades to the CF-18s if reapplied could build 42,333, $150,000 houses. That means it could pretty much end the housing crisis on reserves and provide at least 100,000 temporary jobs. It could build 254 hospitals at a cost of $25,000,000 each.

If applied in developing countries, this much cash could arguably achieve 3 or 4 times as much.

As if this weren’t enough, let’s keep in mind that each Hornet at $325,000,000 carries a maximum of two humans and 11 bombs. You could get that into an SUV! Furthermore, the fighter jet has only two applications: destruction of airports, homes, hospitals, factories, roads, bridges, etc—and the killing of people. It can’t operate as a rescue vehicle, as transport for people or as a freight moving vehicle. Except for it’s lethal potential, it’s a $325,000,000 pile of junk that--because we are not at war and because we have no urgent need to fear attack from anyone--will serve as little else beside the stroking of crisply uniformed, robotic, marching military types for whom lethal weaponry is a macho turn-on.

I’m not sure how many search and rescue helicopters, how many forest-fire-fighting planes and helicopters this money could buy, but given a choice, my taxes would be given up much more happily for the purchase of equipment that saves property, that protects life against fire and flood, pollution and climate change.

Most recently, our fighter jets have participated in Libya where we’re implicated now in the virtual destruction of that country as a functioning entity, and in Iraq/Syria where our participation was largely inconsequential and the strategies dubious at best.

But then, our aging fleet is an embarrassment whenever we compare them to the machinery of our allies, we're told. The Hornets will help us save face in a world that measures strength militarily.

How much face can $6,350,000,000 buy? It better be a lot.

And by the way, this interim plan by itself amounts to an expenditure of $211.00 for every man, woman and child in the country, unless you add in the cost of borrowing the money for it--which we'll likely end up doing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Mobile vulgus.

"If Hillary gets in, I myself I'm (sic) ready for a revolution because we can't have her in."

The woman who said this to a reporter possibly knows little history, may never have studied the roots of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution. I’m pretty sure, though, that her comments were energized by an emotion similar to that of the bearers of pitchforks and muskets in earlier sociopolitical upheavals; rage at the consciousness of living under the real or perceived oppression of those whose wealth and power has freed them from the muck and pain of life in the “real world.” A perfect mix of jealousy, frustration, indignation and visceral rage, a brush fire stoked by the winds of mobile vulgus, “‘the fickle crowd,’” [and] from which the English term ‘mob’ originally was derived in the 1680s.”

We have names for it that don’t require a knowledge of Latin: populism is what it’s being called in the news these days: a population seeks to wrest control from corrupt rulers. Populism is a political ideology that holds that virtuous citizens are mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. Populism depicts elites as trampling on the rights, values, and voices of the legitimate people.”

It’s not surprising that those who own power and wealth should fear populist upheaval. Neither is it surprising that the relatively comfortable “middle classes” should fear it; better the devil you know then the devil you don’t, and most of us between the extremes have already contented ourselves with life in relatively warm, fuzzy niches.

What’s happening in America—that would make a lower middle class woman in Alabama use the word “revolution”—doesn’t strike me as unusual given the history of humankind. That democracies have routinely failed to deliver promised fairness and equity is one of the real frustrations of our age. America, Canada, Britain, Germany, etc.—as democratic in their makeup as any country has ever been—have nevertheless developed a socioeconomic layering that wouldn’t have to be! As surely as the ostentatious, privileged lives of France's  Louis the 14th or the Romanov oligarchy of Russia produced a festering that would eventually burst forth in revolution, so the political, economic elites of modern democracies should be more aware that creeping class structuring, escalating privilege can’t possibly weather the storms of time untouched.

The mob that drives revolutions can bear almost any political, social, even religious stamp. What`s happening in the USA is not really reminiscent of the Peasant Revolts of the 16th Century in Germany where economic, religious and social dissatisfaction boiled over simultaneously. (One-third of the estimated 300,000 individuals participating in the uprising were slaughtered by the ruling classes and their armies.) What do the supporters of the changes currently rallying behind Donald Trump have in common? 

What’s the nature of the glue that holds them together? We’re told the current Trumpian phenomenon owes its primary support to angry, white, middle-class men. Is it then little more than a Freudian striking back against feelings of castration and the blaming of this emasculation onto foreigners, ethnic minorities and a conspiracy of economic elites? That wouldn’t explain the masses of screaming women waving “lock her up” protest signs at Trump rallies. Does it have to do with the fact that the opposing candidate is female and that the majority of men are deathly fearful of the “Samson haircut?” and that certain women have never overcome their antagonism to counterparts who manage to gain stature and power in a society where they themselves have neither?

It’s not enough to say that the revolution shaping itself in the USA is the product of ignorance and pettiness, although both are displayed in abundance in every utterance of Donald Trump. The American Doctor Jekyll invented and constructed the Mr. Hyde it’s currently struggling to control. Past policies must always be looked to when current “revolution” threatens.

Will November 8th initiate another violent revolution as some are predicting? Certainly there are pitchforks (read handguns and assault rifles) enough to make mayhem and the shedding of much blood a possibility and even the most squeamish can come to welcome it given the visceral energy that builds in mobilus vulgus movements.

In the German Peasant Wars, the revolutionaries were defeated because they were vastly outgunned technically, but also because they turned out to be battlefield incompetents; mob bravado is normally just that, it dissolves quickly when the mob is scattered and individuals begin to fear for their actual lives.

The last party I’d be loathe to mess with is the American military machine.